The Toyota FJ Cruiser is unwaveringly retro, and while its demise (due to declining sales) has been confirmed in the US, the tough as nails off-roader remains very much alive down under.
Pricing starts at $47,990, which is good value when you consider the all-round ability the FJ Cruiser offers. The 4.0-litre V6 engine generates 200kW and 380Nm. As a nod to the old school design, 4WD is part time but there’s a five-speed automatic gearbox – something original FJ owners would have loved back in the day. A rear diff lock is standard across the range.
CarAdvice recently had the opportunity to take an FJ Cruiser a long way off road – and a long way up in fact – in the Rocky Mountains in Colorado with Toyota. Not much has changed for the FJ Cruiser since its launch in Australia in 2011, but it is still mightily impressive in the way it plies its trade when the going gets tough.
Our drive started in Denver – the mile high city – with a 400-plus kilometre road drive out to Ouray in the Rocky Mountains. From there, we headed off-road, climbing up to altitudes of 5000 metres, with some serious rough and rugged stuff along the way. After a weekend of climbing, we had hit the summit of six peaks taller than 3900m. Think sheer drops of more than 1000m on one side, and sheer cliffs higher than 1000m on the other. Not for the fainthearted, and no place for soft-roaders either.
When it comes to genuine off-road vehicles few can actually provide a viable daily driving alternative. Off the showroom floor, the Jeep Wrangler Rubicon and Toyota FJ Cruiser sit head and shoulders above all others. Sure, there’s a case to be made for the 70-Series LandCruiser with its super low gearing, optional front and rear diff lockers and torque-laden single turbo diesel V8 - but only the truly hardcore 4WD enthusiasts would argue it is anything more than a tough as nails work truck. I wouldn’t want to have to drive one in traffic every day.
The Wrangler Rubicon, while tremendously capable off-road, is far from pleasant on-road. It’s a tough gig when you’re bashing your way to work in peak hour behind the wheel, despite the fact that plenty of masochists do it. It's still not - and has never been - a comfortable car on-road. Historically, that’s the price we’ve always had to pay for ultimate off-road ability, though. The irony that so few Wrangler owners ever actually head off road isn’t lost on me.
The tarmac drive between Denver and Ouray saw the FJ Cruiser get along quietly and comfortably at highway speeds. Even with the more aggressive BF Goodrich rubber fitted to our test vehicles, there was almost no tyre noise entering the cabin, or wind noise up to 130km/h. Forward visibility proved excellent, and it was comfortable for the long haul despite the relatively upright seating position.
Being built on the more expensive and more practical LandCruiser Prado's platform, the FJ Cruiser is a known quantity mechanically that is easily useable as a daily driver. Unlike the Prado, the FJ's utilitarian interior trim is decidedly functional. That toughness was tested by an exploding can of Coke that saw us wipe off just about every surface. Toyota suggests you can "hose it out" - a soft, damp cloth is more suited - but plastic and rubber is much easier to clean than plush carpets and thick fabrics.
The FJ Cruiser has few weak points, the most pertinent being the lack of a diesel engine option. That's not a problem in the US, where owners evidently couldn’t care less about diesel frugality, but it’s a little different in Australia considering the price of petrol. That said, the V6 petrol engine is versatile, flexible and not as thirsty as you might think with an ADR claim of 11.4L/100km. You will see considerably usage higher than that around town, though.
Head off-road, even in standard trim, and the FJ Cruiser excels. Our test vehicles had some tasty TRD accessories fitted (sadly no supercharger kit) but all you really need is a set of more aggressive tyres and you’re ready to tackle the nastiest terrain. It wasn’t wet or muddy enough to truly notice the benefit of the BF Gs on our car, though.
Low range allows the FJ to ably tackle harsh terrain with ease. Shifting into 4 High or even 4 Low on the move was easy and precise up to 20km/h (which we used as a safety margin). Low range throttle modulation wasn’t a factor and it never jerked and lurched like some high-riders can due to overly sensitive pedals. It was critical in low range, when you want to carefully regulate your speed over rocky climbs.
The switchable rear diff locker is also a welcome bonus off-road. Thanks to the competence of the 4WD system and those tyres we only locked the diff in twice, and the FJ Cruiser made easy meat out of two otherwise difficult, tight sections of track.
There are three measurements critical to off-road driving: approach, departure and ramp-over angles. The FJ ticks the boxes in all of these regards, with a 36.0 degree approach, 31.0 degree departure and ramp-over of 29.0 degrees. Its short overhangs make easy work of steep inclines or drop-offs and rarely, if ever, touches down or scrapes the front or rear ends. Our test vehicle had suspension that had been raised two inches which improved the adequate standard ramp-over angle even more.
We had to climb over plenty of gnarly, rocky terrain and the FJ did it easily. Some other off-roaders, such as 200-Series LandCruisers and 4Runners, were scraping quite heavily in areas that didn’t bother the FJ at all.
Visibility comes into play and its boxy, retro styling makes placing the corners of the vehicle exactly where you want them a cinch, allowing you to rest safely in the knowledge that you aren’t going to plough into anything. The high and mighty driving position helps with visibility off-road, as does the upright windscreen. Rearward visibility isn’t brilliant thanks to its unconventional suicide doors, but if you’re looking backwards too much when you’re off-road, you might have bigger issues than visibility...
Those doors are a nice talking point, but they're not the most practical. They don’t open wide enough to make entry any easier than it would be climbing into a two-door. Plus you have to reach inside to open them from outside, which will get annoying if you have to do it often. Once you’re in there’s plenty of room, and like the front seats, the second row is quite comfortable even for taller adults.
The cabin proved well insulated from dust, and with comfortable, slightly flat front seats over longer distances. Those in the cabin aren't affected too badly by nasty bumps, even with the stock suspension, and occupants don’t get flung around the cabin off-road.
One interior gripe is the harsh plastic door trim when you’re banging along a trail. There’s a tendency to nail your elbows on the doors, and it doesn’t tickle if you hit hard enough. It can be a little annoying though over really bumpy tracks such as those we encountered on the second day.
The audio system won't win any technology awards, but it works well enough and connects easily to your Bluetooth-enabled phone. The FJ Cruiser owners we spoke to in the States said they tended to upgrade the standard audio system rather than live with the old tech standard unit.
One of the FJ Cruiser’s most salient strong points is a vast array of customisation options - even in a country like Australia that makes it as difficult as possible to modify a vehicle. Bull bars, spot lights, racks, ladders, suspension, engine mods, wheels and tyres, you name it. You can find whatever you need to turn the FJ into an even more formidable off-road weapon. Most of the heavily modified Cruisers we saw in the States were fitted with Australian products.
Overall, there’s a lot to like about the Toyota FJ Cruiser, especially if you intend to venture off-road regularly. That it's comfortable and competent on-road adds further backs up its credentials.